Anne Sweeney, Disney-ABC Television Group
Giving consumers what they want, when they want it defines Disney's current strategy.For Anne Sweeney, president of Disney-ABC Television Group and co-chairman of Disney Media Networks, last year was all about the rush of taking a great leap forward into the digital future with the landmark Apple iTunes licensing pact. This year, it's been all about execution of the Walt Disney Co.'s bold global digital strategy -- plus a few more leaps.
"The success we've had feels like such a validation of our goals and validation of everyone's hard work," Sweeney says. "What we've really seemed to capitalize on is the cross-divisional opportunities we have at Disney."
Sweeney's colleagues say her management style is well-suited to the demands of the ambitious campaign that Disney CEO Robert Iger is leading to get Disney-produced content distributed on nontraditional platforms around the world. She generally maintains a hands-off management style, trusting key lieutenants to run their own shops unless a situation calls for her involvement. For the most part, Sweeney keeps her focus on the big picture, which is vital these days as media and entertainment businesses are in the throes of fundamental transformations.
"Consumers are telling us exactly what they want and how they want it. The changes in consumer behavior are driving our businesses in ways that we couldn't have imagined even four or five years ago," Sweeney says.
Disney made headlines in October 2005 with its licensing agreement with Apple's iTunes that made ABC and Disney Channel hits available on a download-on-demand basis at $1.99 an episode. In May and June of this year, ABC went out on a limb by offering streaming video of episodes of six series, including hits "Desperate Housewives" and "Grey's Anatomy," via ABC.com. The test went well, needless to say -- 5.7 million streams well.
Since the streaming option returned as a permanent feature of ABC.com in mid-September, there have been nearly 19 million requests for streams. Sweeney admits to being addicted to studying the data gathered from the traffic flowing from the Web sites of ABC and Disney Channel, the latter of which launched its own hugely successful streaming media player in June.
The company's increasingly global focus also has been educational, Sweeney says, as it has done deals in places such as France, Germany, Italy and South Korea that are much more advanced with regard to programming specifically tailored for the "fifth screen" of next-generation mobile devices. And as part of this initiative, Disney also is doing more local-language original production -- whether it's children's programming in Italy or an Argentinean rendition of "Housewives."
Sweeney's roots in the early years of cable programming give her a certain perspective on all of the changes enveloping the traditional TV business. As she noted in her keynote speech during October's MIPCOM international TV sales convention in Cannes, the fragmentation of cable in the 1970s and '80s was really "just the first step toward a more personal experience with media."
Sweeney's personal experience with the medium she loves began in earnest when she landed a job as a page at ABC during her senior year at the College of New Rochelle in New York. A native of Long Island, N.Y., Sweeney intended to follow her parents into teaching and went on to earn a master's degree in education at Harvard University. She segued from Cambridge, Mass., to Nickelodeon in 1981, when it had just been taken over by Geraldine Laybourne.
Although she now has the benefit of a lofty 30,000-foot view of the industry, Sweeney tries hard to never forget a pivotal decision she made during her formative years. One day, while visiting a friend who was a casting director and looking at a two-foot-high stack of head shots on his floor, she realized that she did not have the talent or the drive necessary to make her dream of conquering the stage come true.
"I think it's why I have such a deep appreciation for the work that actors, writers, directors and producers do for us," Sweeney says. "I'm glad I came to that decision when I did. I'm on the right side of the camera."
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